Surveillance cameras at internet cafés, harsh accountability standards for webmasters and the specter of self-censorship have many questioning the future of Internet freedom.
The rise of information and communication technologies has not only revolutionized how people interact with each other but also forced many governments to operate in significantly altered political landscapes.
In some cases governments can help unleash the full potential of an open and free internet; for instance, by ensuring that the web is accessible and affordable to all. On the other hand, governments can also seek to inhibit such access.
The latter seems to be the case in Southeast Asia where, under the cloak of exorcising the evils of cyber crimes, governments have enacted numerous laws that undermine the people’s internet freedom and civil liberties.
For example, the Cambodian government is enforcing legislation drafted earlier this year which requires internet cafés to set up surveillance cameras and to register users. It’s supposedly a crime prevention measure but critics have argued that it violates privacy rights. It could easily be used as well to harass online critics of the government. This fear is perhaps not entirely baseless considering that the government instructed local internet service providers to block several opposition websites a year ago.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, the proposed Code of Conduct for bloggers which didn’t get a favorable response from the local internet community was finally discarded by the government in favor of a Media Literacy Council. Established in August, the council is tasked to promote public education on media literacy and cyber wellness. But critics have questioned the lack of transparency in appointing the members of the council which is seen by some as another internet censorship tool. They are worried that the council might promote a narrow and twisted interpretation of media literacy to prevent netizens from freely expressing their views and sentiments.
Recently, the Philippines enacted the Anti-Cybercrime Law which aims to prevent cyberspace from degenerating into a “lawless realm.” But the law was described as a threat to media freedom by journalists who protested the last-minute inclusion of libel into the law. Instead of decriminalizing libel, which has been the demand of media groups for years, the government enacted a law which increased the prison term for libel. Furthermore, lawyers have cited a provision in the law which empowers the Department of Justice to shut down any computer data system that violates the law. Also, the agency has the authority to instantly censor harmful or illicit web content even if the evidence submitted to the government is not conclusive.
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